Tests, elections, and achievement

Any number of things can be said about next week's election and I will forbear from most of them. But one issue has surfaced that is genuinely alarming for education reformers: indications that some Democratic candidates (and office holders) are turning against standards-based reform and moving to roll back the assessment regimen that plays a crucial role in it.

A decade ago, when Bill Clinton proposed a form of national testing, I quipped that the political challenge this plan faced was that "Republicans don't like national and Democrats don't like testing." And in fact the Clinton proposal crashed and burned.
         
In the years since, however, standards-based reform has enjoyed bipartisan support in most states and certainly on Capitol Hill, where the mother of all standards-based measures, the No Child Left Behind act, was famously the joint product of two Democrats (Kennedy, Miller) and three Republicans (Gregg, Boehner, Bush). Most observers agree that it wouldn't otherwise have happened--and that without bipartisan backing in the future it probably cannot endure.
           
I don't know what a Democratic majority in the House and/or Senate during the 110th Congress means for federal education policy in general and NCLB in particular. (I can certainly foresee livelier appropriations tussles, but it's hard to think the authorizing gridlock could get any worse!) 
           
In the states, however, trouble lies ahead if newly-elected leaders set out to tip over the tripod of standards, testing, and accountability. Indeed, trouble may already be at hand if this reform strategy has become a partisan football.

Washington Post
reporter Peter Whoriskey recently wrote that "This election season may be the first in which the growing use of high-stakes school testing...has reached this level of political prominence," citing Texas, Florida and Ohio as specimens of places where statewide testing looms large in the gubernatorial contests (see here). The Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, Jim Davis, promises to "stop using the FCAT to punish children, teachers and schools." His counterpart in Texas is running a TV ad that says U.S. kids "should be leading the world, and they're not going to get there by filling in little ovals all day long." In Ohio, candidate Ted Strickland promises a top-to-bottom review of the state testing program.

An Associated Press story says Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick would keep the Bay State's well-regarded MCAS tests but de-emphasize their results in favor of educating the "whole child." (The Independent and Green party candidates, though electoral long-shots, would scrap MCAS as a graduation requirement.)

There's nothing wrong with fine-tuning a complex accountability system and adding elements that objective tests may not capture. I don't know any state that couldn't usefully improve its K-12 reform regimen. But the implication in all four of these state races, and doubtless others that I don't know about, is that mean Republicans have imposed punitive tests on innocent kids and teachers and kindly Democrats will ease this burden, if voters will just give them the opportunity.

In my experience, heavy-duty reform of any major public enterprise doesn't gain traction--or last long enough to prove itself--without bipartisan support. The premier case-in-point is of course welfare reform. It couldn't really happen, at least nationally, until leaders of both parties acknowledged the need for it, then enacted it, then stuck with it.

I thought NCLB heralded a similar era for standards-based education reform. Both parties compromised; many members of Congress took deep breaths, even held their noses, as favorite education nostrums were sacrificed on the altar of consensus.

If this now comes unglued at the state level, three problems will swiftly arise.

  • More states will push back against NCLB, maybe even opt out of it, seek to ease its provisions and soften its enforcement.

  • Educators, parents and students will conclude that standards-based reform, like (say) school uniforms, is a passing fad, something they can wait out rather than altering their behavior to comply with.
  • Both parties will revert to type, with Democrats tending to lavish goodies on the teacher unions and Republicans pressing for vouchers--and each doing its best to stymie the other.

Above all, the achievement gains already associated in many places with standards-based reform will stop being realized and progress toward more universal proficiency will slow. We know that schools, teachers, and kids change slowly and any education reform takes time (and credibility and sustainability) to gather momentum. Reforming education means changing the behavior of reluctant people and resistant institutions. That's a slow and painful process, one far easier to halt than to accelerate.

Yet persistence pays off. The latest Fordham study, How Well Are States Educating Our Neediest Children?, illustrates some of this payoff. It looks at the achievement of poor and minority kids, state by state, as measured by NAEP; at changes over time in that achievement; and at a host of reforms, many dealing with standards and testing. While we don't claim social-scientific certainty (a rarity at best), we see clear linkages between states that have taken education reform seriously and those that can point to achievement gains among the kids who need them most. Quoting our report:

Interestingly, the top ten school reform states also made at least some progress--and in five cases, moderate progress--in boosting the achievement of their poor and minority students over the last decade or so. This is a welcome sign suggesting that setting clear, rigorous standards in the core subjects of the academic curriculum; holding schools accountable for helping all their students reach them; and giving parents meaningful choices appear to be a winning combination, especially for our most disadvantaged students. Which makes it all the more tragic that half the states in the nation are missing the bus on education reform.

The states in which poor and minority youngsters have racked up the greatest (albeit "moderate") achievement gains in recent years include Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts. (Ohio can claim "limited" gains.) What a shame it will be if that progress slows or ceases (or reverses) because the reform regimes that fostered it have the brakes put on. How ironic it will be if those brakes are applied by leaders of the party that purports to look out for the interests of the poor and minorities. What a disaster for America if states that have painfully climbed aboard the reform bus now jump back down into the roadside dirt.

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